In college, I started a conversation with one of my coworkers. He was raised to believe Jesus was the only way. However, while in high school he began questioning his beliefs. “How can an all-loving God send people to hell?” My friend did not just question God but the very reality of hell itself. Is it a real place? How long would someone go there? After all, eternity is a long time.
In the attempt to downgrade hell and show a wideness in God’s mercy, some have not only shunned the traditional view of an everlasting hell but also try to discredit its existence altogether. Missions isn’t so much about depopulating hell as it is about spreading the glory of God in Jesus. When we turn down the heat of hell we turn down the heat for the mission. Our thoughts on eternity drastically impact the way we live our lives. To make sure we stay on fire for Jesus, here are four views of this dreadful place.
View One: A Metaphor.
In this view hell is not real, but invoked to scare us into better living. Hell is reduced to a moral suggestion. The problem with the metaphorical view is that Jesus often refers to hell as a physical place. He warns against the wicked being thrown into Gehenna, a place known to be the city dump outside of Jerusalem. In Matthew 18:9, Jesus said, “It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” Viewing hell as a metaphor diminishes the seriousness of that warning.
View Two: A Temporary Place.
This view holds to a purgatorial role for hell. Traditionally a Catholic doctrine, it maintains hell is a place for purification of sins. Once finished, you are ready for heaven. Zachary Hayes, teacher of Catholic theology, stated,
The notion of purgatory is intimately related to the conviction that our eternal destiny is irrevocably decided at the moment of our death and that, ultimately, our eternal destiny can be only heaven or hell. But not everyone seems “bad enough” to be consigned to an eternal hell. And most do not seem “good enough” to be candidates for heaven.… Therefore, some sort of a cleansing process is postulated between death and the entrance into heaven.11
The purgatorial view is largely understood in the context of Catholic Church history and has zero Scriptural support. The moralistic notion of candidates not “good enough” for heaven is contrary to the gospel. Believers have been cleansed of all unrighteousness. “We have now been justified by his blood.… While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:9-10, esv).
View Three: We Burn Up.
This view is called annihilationism. The wicked will suffer for a season and, after their payment, slowly pass out of existence. There will be no eternal, conscious punishment. The main problem with annihilationism is the strong language in verses like Revelation 14:11 (esv): “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.” This gives no indication the wicked will ever cease to exist, showing conclusively unbelieving persons will experience eternal, conscious torment. Jonathan Edwards stated, “God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty.… So that sin against God … must be a crime infinitely heinous, and so deserving infinite punishment.”12
View Four: A Literal Place, Forever.
The traditional view is all sinners will be consciously punished for eternity. Scripture says sin must be punished: “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). This refers to spiritual death. Hell is reserved for the punishment of sinners. With a quiver in our voice we must confess hell is most assuredly everlasting and unquenchable.
Our “beliefs are the rails upon which our life runs,” but our thoughts of eternity should never be an obstacle to living a missional life.15 The reality of hell is a motivating factor for the kingdom of God to advance with urgency in the places it is not. What we believe about hell will dramatically impact the way we live our lives. Christ emphasized it and even died for us to avoid it. Let us not minimize it. We need to hold fast to the realities of the gospel.
By Josh Cooper